Enlisting Humanity by Uplifting the Voices Who Have Gone Unheard: Undergraduate Research in Oral History

Enlisting Humanity by Uplifting the Voices Who Have Gone Unheard

By Emily Nodal

Emily Nodal, UC Berkeley Class of 2022

Emily Nodal, UC Berkeley Class of 2022, is a Society and Environment major in the Rausser College of Natural Resources with an emphasis on justice and sustainability while minoring in public policy. In Spring 2021, Emily worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor in the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library and earned academic credits as part of Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. For her URAP project, Emily used oral history materials to create the video embedded below on “Environmental Justice, Systemic Racism, and Democracy.” She also suggested high school curriculum materials to accompany the video. Below, Emily shares the personal nature of her research.

For my URAP project during the Spring 2021 semester, I had the privilege of developing a high school curriculum on environmental justice utilizing the narratives and perspectives of those interviewed by the Oral History Center. This project was very personal to me because environmental injustice has become increasingly prevalent in my own community.

Amazon shipping hub in southern California. Photograph: Courtesy of Anthony Victoria, People’s Collective for Environmental Justice

I grew up in the Inland Empire, an industrialized region in Southern California inhabited predominantly by low-income communities of color, where consistently poor air quality and smoggy days felt like the norm to my peers and me. In recent years, the rapid development of Amazon warehouses and corresponding traffic congestion has exacerbated the environmental vulnerability of my community’s exposure to environmental toxins and their subsequent health hazards.

Efforts in 2020 to expedite delivery services for the online shipping boom wrought by the coronavirus pandemic resulted in dramatic expansion of Amazon’s shipping facilities while further enriching the multi-billion dollar corporation. Amazon’s development efforts have heightened shipping efficiencies and brought new jobs to these predominantly low-income communities of color, while also disproportionately burdening the already polluted region with negative amenities and toxic hazards. According to the Inland Empire-based “People’s Collective for Environmental Justice,” the more than 3,000 warehouses in the Inland Empire are all sited in the highest percentile for toxic emissions in the state and the populations living within a half-mile radius of the warehouses are 85% people of color. As someone who grappled with the realities of environmental inequity directly, I welcomed the chance to expand my environmental justice research into an effective, oral history-based high school curriculum.

While exploring the array of interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project archive, I felt drawn to the narrative of Aaron Mair, a leader in the environmental justice movement and a former president of the Sierra Club. As a prominent Sierra Club leader from the EJ (environmental justice) movement and the first black president of the historically white environmental organization, Mair vividly illustrated how we, as environmental activists, must understand our environmental well-being as linked inextricably to the social, racial, and economic well-being of all others. Mair’s oral history became the basis for the educational video I created.

Aaron Mair at his family homestead in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina in November 2018.

The ability of Mair and his family to endure the burdens of generational racism while at the same time upholding a connection to the natural world resonated with me and my own family’s experiences. Unlike the predominantly white leaders in the Sierra Club, many of whom began their activism focused on land and wildlife preservation, Mair’s lived experiences enabled him to see the cruciality of equitably uplifting all human and non-human stakeholders in conversations around environmental protection. He explained how his journey into the mainstream environmental movement came from his “family’s sense of home-place and a civil rights struggle, a migration struggle and pressure, dealing with the pressures of racism, while at the same time maintaining human dignity, but also maintaining a connection with their love of the natural beauty and wonders.

Although I grew up in a low-income household, my family also valued the outdoors and took me camping in nature, which created my deep connection to and reverence for the natural world. However, I found my own experiences vastly different from many of my school peers from similar backgrounds. Environmental scholars like Carolyn Finney and Lauret Savoy have explored why many black and brown kids, from a young age, come to believe that nature and environmentalism isn’t for us. For too many of us, natural places and spaces are financially and even culturally inaccessible.

My engagement with Mair’s oral history narrative, coupled with my own experiences, reinforced how that racial exclusion emerged out of environmentalism’s flawed beginnings. Like many other movements in United States history, campaigns and institutions for wilderness preservation, land conservation, and modern environmentalism have been historically white-dominated. Mair examined this harmful past by reflecting upon his own organization and its founders, including the notoriously racist early UC Berkeley professor Joseph LeConte. As Mair explained in his oral history, LeConte “believed that African-Americans and Native Americans were inferior and separate and distinct races. He believed in his theory of life, which is that whites had a natural order and a higher chain of evolution over all things. He preached a theory of dominion over all things as opposed to stewardship of all things.” The problematic ideologies of early environmental advocates like Joseph LeConte permeated into the early environmental movement’s limited range of diversity and exclusionary land management practices. As described by Mair “it was them imposing upon [the land] their white will.”

In his oral history, Mair also explained how the environmental movement’s history continues to plague 21st century environmentalism in fundamental ways. Mair noted how “othering” marginalized groups historically has created contemporary environmental crises, as exclusion from environmental spaces has prevented those groups from becoming valid stakeholders in land-use decision making. Throughout most of its history, American environmentalism detrimentally established a dichotomy between humanity and nature, therefore requiring all humans not seen as “proper” stewards to be excluded. Mair critiqued this shortcoming in traditional environmental organizations, including in the Sierra Club, as advocating for the exclusion of humanity from nature in order to “save” it.

David Brower (center) leads a 1966 effort to “Save” the Grand Canyon. Photo: The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

As Mair explained: “In the ‘saves,’ we create environmental organizations, and we become part of these clubs. And we think that the best way to protect land and nature is at the exclusion of humanity rather than the inclusion of humanity. It’s like building a fine Swiss watch and leaving out a master gear. And so, the ‘save’ organizations and their notion of preservation is missing a critical element, which is humanity, and humanity as a steward within that relationship. We should not be outside of it. Integral to the protection is our harmony with it… To me, that is like the story of the Yosemite Valley, how the First Nations were cleared out of the Yosemite Valley to protect it, even though they lived there for thousands of years… When humanity is relegated to being viewed as dirty or polluted in the eyes of the environment by other men, we lose something. That is indeed a crisis.”

The curriculum I created for this URAP project focused on environmental justice because if people of color remain socially, culturally, and economically  disabled from accessing environmental spaces, then we will never be able to meaningfully contribute our widely diverse perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and solutions to the world’s escalating crises of climate change. Again, Aaron Mair articulated the need to expand and democratize marginalized communities’ access to environmental activism by his re-framing of the Sierra Club’s core mission to “enlist humanity.” Mair explained how “fundamentally in the United States as you enlist humanity in the United States, it’s through our democracy. It’s empowering our democracy. It’s empowering our humanity… And this is a huge linking of environmental rights, civil rights, voting rights, linking the fact that environmental [justice] is a function of a healthy democracy in civil society. The … fusion of the civil rights, environmental rights, and labor rights efforts really jived with our efforts to save humanity. Because if we’re going to talk about [how] to enlist humanity to save the planet, we have to tap and show humanity how these things are all connected.” Through his foundations in environmental justice, Mair understood that, to truly combat environmental degradation, the environmental movement must enlist people from historically oppressed, disinvested, and environmentally polluted communities.

Similarly, for my own community’s fight against environmental racism in the Inland Empire, vast populations of local community members must be mobilized to combat a multi-billion dollar corporation’s toxification of the region. Exploring Mair’s insights helped me realize how efforts in my own community require an intersectional approach of labor justice, environmental justice, and racial justice. Building enough pressure to combat the Inland Empire’s warehousing boom demands solidarity against the leading drivers of inequity and vulnerability. Although local community members will lead the fight, we must also enlist wider populations from a diversity of disciplines, localities, and demographics since the climate implications of Amazon’s warehousing boom also impacts our environment on a much wider scale. Amazon’s 2019 carbon report revealed that the global corporation “emitted 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year,” an increase of 15% from 2018. I expect those numbers to rise even further due to the shipping boom brought upon by the global pandemic.

My reading of Aaron Mair’s oral history reiterates how radical change that finally prioritizes the well being of people and the natural world requires a wide range of collaborations between stakeholders on a wide scale. The mainstream environmental movement, the environmental justice movement, the labor justice movement, and the racial justice movement must learn to overcome ideological divisions, embrace their intersectional interests, and take unified action against structural trends that inherently create inequitable and unsustainable conditions. As Mair said, “The mutuality of all of us, depending upon all of us, our survival is dependent upon our neighbors. It’s dependent upon all the creatures, all the things within this planet. But our stewardship of those relationships, we don’t have the luxury to hate our brother, hate our sister. We don’t. And we don’t have the luxury to destroy and deplete all the ecosystems, because at the end of the day it is humanity that’s in the balance.”

I hope my curriculum development for this URAP project will contribute to education that expands minds and inspires change. For too long, people of color have been excluded from meaningful participation in environmental issues that directly impact the health of their children, families, and communities. By empowering and uplifting the voices of people who have often gone unheard, I hope we can more effectively come together as equitable stakeholders and participants in the movement for a more just and sustainable world.


Chew on That: A Guide to the Oral History Center’s Food and Agriculture Collection

By Lauren Sheehan-Clark

In many ways, the history of food is the history of our world. It’s present in all aspects of day-to-day life; it shapes everything from our culture to our consumer habits. Food can inform us about politics and economics, environmentalism and land use — all issues of global importance — or it can reveal intimate stories of family, friendship, and generational strength. Ask someone about what they eat and drink, and you’ll hear their story.

At the UC Berkeley Oral History Center, our historians do just that. Interviews related to the history of food, food systems, and agriculture have long been a mainstay of the OHC’s research agenda, and reading through the Food and Agriculture project makes that abundantly clear. With more than 100 interviews dating back to the 1950s, the collection forms an impressive resource for scholars, students, and members of the general public alike. 

Interviews range in scope from studies of the dairy industry to tales of local bakeries, but the heart of this collection is an expansive series on the California wine industry launched in 1969. Discover the rich history of California wine from Prohibition to Y2K as told by the winemakers, marketers, researchers, and countless others who had a direct hand in shaping the industry. And with interviews from famed enology and viticulture professors from UC Berkeley and UC Davis — such as Harold Olmo, Albert Winkler, and Maynard Amerine — the California wine series also reveals a good deal of insight into university history and the connection between academia and industry. 

Find these and all the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. You can also find projects, including the Food and Agriculture Individual Interviews project, through the menu on our home page from Oral Histories > Projects.

Here is just a small sampling of interviews related to Food and Agriculture: 

Eric Sartenaer: Providing Bread and Pasta to the Bay Area

Eric Sartenaer wearing apron in front of store
Eric Sartenaer

Former UC Berkeley student Eric Sartenaer was a baker and bread maker who established several eateries in the Berkeley and Kensington area. After working at the famed Cheese Board Collective for more than five years, he established Semifreddi’s bakery and cafe on Colusa Avenue in 1984 and a pasta restaurant named The Phoenix Pastificio in 1993. In his interview, Sartenaer discusses the restaurant scene in Berkeley, the history of Cheese Board and other popular eateries, and bread-making techniques.

André Tchelistcheff: Grapes, Wine, and Ecology 

André Tchelistcheff tasting wine
André Tchelistcheff

A giant in the California wine industry, André Tchelistcheff was the longtime vice president of Beaulieu Vineyards and a consultant to countless other vintners in Napa Valley. Tchelistcheff’s influence is unmistakable: his name echoes throughout the interviews of other winemakers in our collection, and among the many people who consider him a mentor are Napa Valley leaders such as Robert Mondavi and Louis Martini. In his interview, Tchelistcheff discusses winemaking in Europe and California, technological advancements in viticulture, and his secondary career as a vineyard consultant.

Cecilia Chiang: Chef and Businesswoman 

Cecilia Chiang interacting with customers at her restaurant
Cecilia Chiang at The Mandarin Restaurant

Cecilia Chiang revolutionized Chinese cooking in the United States. A chef and businesswoman born in Wuxi, China, she established the first Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco in 1957 and built on her success to open a second location in Beverly Hills in 1975, all while acting as a consultant to new restaurants and providing cooking classes to Bay Area chefs. In her interview, Chiang discusses her life in China during the Japanese occupation, the importance of food and cooking, and the growth of Mandarin Restaurant into a culinary hotspot.

Harold Olmo: Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties

Harold Almo with grape vines
Harold Almo

Harold Olmo was a leading figure in viticulture and enology and a professor at UC Davis, where he worked in the Department of Viticulture for more than forty years. A well-respected expert, Olmo worked with numerous agricultural organizations, including the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In his interview, he discusses the creation of new grape varieties, university-industry relations, and his research abroad in countries such as Afghanistan and Brazil.

Merry Edwards: Meredith Vineyard Estate

Merry Edwards standing in field
Merry Edwards

Another UC Berkeley alum, Merry Edwards was a vintner and wine consultant who worked with numerous wineries in the Sonoma County region. Edwards worked as a winemaker for Mount Eden Vineyards and Matanzas Creek Winery in addition to producing wines independently, later establishing the Merry Edwards Winery in 2006. In her interview, Edwards speaks frankly on the discrimination against women in the wine industry and discusses her early introduction to wine, experiments with fruit wine in college, and differences between European and American winemaking.

Whether you’re researching changes in American business practices over the twentieth century or are simply curious about the history of a local Berkeley restaurant, our Food and Agriculture collection has you covered. So sit back, grab yourself a bite to eat, and dive into these interviews to learn the story behind your food and drinks. 

Lauren Sheehan-Clark is a senior at UC Berkeley studying history and English and is an editorial assistant at the Oral History Center.

 

Montage of André Tchelistcheff, Merry Edwards, Cecilia Chiang, Eric Sartenaer, Harold Almo
Left to Right: André Tchelistcheff, Merry Edwards, Cecilia Chiang, Eric Sartenaer, Harold Almo

Stars and Scars: A Historian’s Lessons from 9/11

by Christine Shook

Christine Shook is an independent historian with over a decade of experience in oral and public history. She earned her master’s in history from California State University, Fullerton in 2010. Her previous positions include Museum Assistant at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Exhibits and Collections Associate at the Tahoe Maritime Museum, and Historian and Assistant Vice President at Wells Fargo’s Family & Business History Center. 

September 11, 2001 was an incredibly surreal day. Never a fan of mornings, I awoke late on the Pacific Coast, turned on the TV, and found some sort of devastation unfurling in the east. I didn’t know what had happened. The newscasters had temporarily moved on from the footage showing the planes hitting the World Trade Center and were instead discussing the rescue efforts and fears that the buildings surrounding the towers might collapse. Terrified and utterly confused, I turned to the Internet for answers and first saw the footage of the second plane hitting the towers, and learned about the four planes that had crashed. I spent the next hour bouncing back and forth between the computer and the tv in an attempt to discover what I missed while staying on top of the latest events. It felt like one of those days when the rest of the world should have paused while this thing worked itself out, but that wasn’t the case. I had to go to work. I tamped down the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty I was experiencing, put on my  work uniform, and prepared to face the public. 

As a  recent high school graduate, I worked the closing shift as an attendant at a swanky hotel spa in Dana Point, California. The spa was relatively empty that day. The only exception was a  couple from New York who found themselves stranded in Southern California. Unable to fly home or contact any of their friends and family, they came to the spa hoping to find a much needed distraction from the things they could not control. They didn’t stay long. 

Later that night, the rest of the spa staff and I spent the hours until closing in one of those drab back rooms that only hotel staff sees, adjusting the antenna on a radio so that we could hear the latest news. As I sat listening to the radio waiting for updates about these attacks on 9/11, my mind transported me to sixty years in the past to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I began to wonder if Americans in 1941 also experienced this atmosphere of angst, remorse, anger, and uncertainty. The events of December 7, 1941 led to years of war and sacrifice. Was that where we were heading? 

St. Paul's Cathedral
Located across the street from Ground Zero, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a place of respite for first responders and recovery workers. The banners seen here in this photo from December 2012 are a few of the many messages of support that once lined the chapel’s interior.

I was not the only one pillaging the past in search of answers about an uncertain present. Politicians, pundits, pastors —  everyone seemed to be making the same comparison to Pearl Harbor, and deriving strength and certainty from the virtue with which America responded to that particular wrong. A common message seemed to be: History has taught us that America is good, so our response will follow suit. Of course, I knew from the stories of family and friends that things were more complicated than that. My grandfather earned medals for his participation in WWII but no one in my family has them today. The physical and psychological wounds with which he returned inspired him to throw those medals into the Atlantic Ocean upon receipt. As a grad student in history, I read Stud Terkel’s “The Good War” and discovered more stories like my grandfather’s that casted doubt on the flawlessness of the conflict and the glorified way in which Americans remember it. The United States’s response to 9/11, the realities of war, and the uncertainty of government actions have similarly affected people in a variety of ways over the past twenty years. While the exact failings of the response to that day vary according to political parties, few think that the United States has handled things with the storied righteousness with which it started. 

My own observations and lessons about 9/11 over the past two decades have been heavily influenced by my work as a historian. For the past six-and-a-half years I helped ultra-high-net-worth families examine their historic roots in search of values and lessons that they could apply to today — using the past to guide future choices and investments. When I first began this work, the message we offered clients was always one of hope: your family not only survived X, it eventually thrived financially. There’s value to that narrative of resilience, of course, but also a danger in overconfidence. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a promising trend where family members — especially those from younger generations — want to know more and more about the hard and uncomfortable truths from their past. They appear to recognize their ancestors as flawed people with cautionary tales that accompany the celebratory. 

I can only hope that this willingness to look at cherished personal histories with a critical eye will expand to include the national narrative. Perhaps the next time America faces another crisis like 9/11, the stories of people like my grandfather, who rejected a jingoistic narrative, won’t be overlooked in order to provide quick answers to the question: what now? 


9/11: An Oral Historian’s Personal Recollection 

by Shanna Farrell

My memories of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 are vivid. I was sitting in my second period senior English class when my teacher, who was known for his sarcasm, delivered the news. 

“Hi, everyone,” he said. “I just heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center.” The class began to laugh awkwardly. 

“No,” he said. “I’m serious. I don’t have any more information than that.”

A hush fell over us, but we proceeded with class as normal. I’m sure I was distracted but we were discussing books and I love discussing books. Besides, it wasn’t yet real. 

When the bell rang, I walked down the hall to my current events class, where our teacher routinely had a TV playing in the back of the room so he could watch the news while he taught. That’s where I first saw the images of the plane crash. Of the burning buildings. Of people falling through the sky. Of endless smoke. Of the clear blue sky. That’s when I realized I needed to call my mother, immediately. The tragedy was now real to me. 

Despite the fact that my family’s residence at the time was in upstate New York, in a small mill town built on the banks of the Hudson River that hugged the Vermont border, my mother worked in New York City. She was in educational sales and her territory covered all five boroughs. She often had appointments at Stuyvesant High School, a building that is just blocks away from the World Trade Center. I knew this because even though my birth certificate indicates something different, I was partially raised in the city. My mom would often point out Stuyvesant High School when we would drive down the West Side Highway or walk around TriBeca or buy tickets for Broadway shows in the atrium of the World Trade Center. That morning, she was on her way there. 

As soon as I reached the main office of my school, I pleaded with the administrative staff to let me use the phone to call my mother. 

“My mom is there. My mom is there,” I repeated. I remember the horror wash over their faces, how one of them picked up the phone and instantly dialed “9” to get me an outside line. Since my mother spent so much time in her car, she had a hard-wired cell phone, cord and all. I punched in her number, but all I got was a busy signal. I did this over and over with the same results. I called my dad and the first thing he said to me was, “I can’t reach her either.” He promised to call me as soon as he heard from my mother. I hung up the phone and turned to see a few others in line behind me waiting their turn to call family or friends who also lived in the city. I didn’t know what else to do but return to class and watch the news on loop. 

I’d felt fear watching major events unfold in the past, like six years earlier when a terrorist blew up a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That had scared me. But this fear, the type I felt while waiting to find out if my mother was alive or dead, was something entirely different. It was panicked and unrelenting. Time seemed to stand still. I could have moved from room to room or stayed in the same seat. (I do, however, remember relocating to the cafeteria at some point where TVs had been wheeled in so we could watch the media coverage.) And then I heard my name over the PA system. I had a phone call and needed to report to the office.

“She’s okay,” my dad said. “She called me from a payphone. She was in Brooklyn.”

In the days that followed I would learn that my mother was headed to Manhattan from Brooklyn that morning, but got stuck on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway while she was en route. Traffic moved slowly, if at all, and she ended up snaking her way to the part of the expressway that is just under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a place known for its iconic view of the lower Manhattan skyline. From there, she watched with hundreds of others as the towers burned and debris floated across the harbor as the wind blew southeast. She was eventually able to make it to Queens, where she pulled over and found a payphone. I would later watch her struggle with what she had seen that day, hear her plead with me not to get on a plane in the coming weeks for a college visit, listen to her talk to colleagues and discover she knew people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

The trauma of the event was lasting for her, for me, and for us as a family. We visited Ground Zero many times and I have memories of the smoldering ashes fading into piles of debris and later becoming a gaping hole in the ground. I remember the photos of the missing people stapled to the fence surrounding the site. I remember the tone of the city and the feeling of community. I remember being so happy that my mother was alive, and so sad that others hadn’t been as lucky. I remember how filled with grief each anniversary of the attacks were each year. 

9/11 memorial

In September 2011, I was starting a master’s program in oral history at Columbia University. The Columbia Center for Oral History Research had started a massive interviewing project ten years earlier, the same day the towers fell. Interviewers–staff, student, and volunteers alike– recorded hundreds of life histories with a wide range of people who were affected by the attacks. They interviewed anyone who wanted to participate and returned to many months later to interview them again. I still consider this to be an innovative model for an oral history project, especially in a field that is constantly asking itself “how soon is too soon?” (For more on this, check out Amanda Tewes’s piece on interviewing around collective trauma.) 

This project served as much of the foundation of the Columbia program and the interviews became the basis for a book, After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 11, 2001 and the Years that Followed, which was published as I began the Master’s program. As graduate students, we read through transcripts, listened to interviews, engaged with theory related to memory and trauma-informed narratives, learned methodology for approaching sensitive interviews, and expanded our studies into other topics, like genocide and mass-incarceration. We even watched a professor interview a paramedic who had been at Ground Zero that day, live in class, offering us the opportunity to practice our question-asking skills. 

It was intense. But it made me into an interviewer who isn’t afraid to shy away from difficult topics. My training also gave me space to process my own grief around the 9/11 attacks. I found myself asking my parents more about that day and how they felt in the years that followed. It gave me a concrete example around which to center my work as an oral historian and how I should approach trauma in my own interviews. How would I want to be asked about these things? How would I feel if I cried in an interview? How would my tone, pace, and velocity of speech change when a difficult subject came up? What were my boundaries and how would I express them to an interviewer? Which of my memories were solid and which were porous? 

In the conversations that I had with my parents after the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, I realized that many of my memories, no matter how vividly I remember that day, were not quite accurate. My mother explained that she hasn’t actually been heading to Stuyvesant High School. Instead, she was trying to get to a school on W 33rd Street through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which enters Manhattan just south of the World Trade Center. This had been part of my narrative for years. My memory wasn’t perfect. 

Now, twenty years later, I’m still using these experiences as the basis for how I approach trauma-centered narratives, and, for that matter, any interview where a sensitive subject comes up. It’s remarkable how much I use the same techniques that I learned in grad school, honing them over the past ten years. My pace, my tone, my body language, my ability to pause and give someone space, my interest in putting my feelings aside to privilege a narrator’s story all matters. As oral historians, we often take the life history approach, which can dredge up painful memories from the past, no matter how much we prepare in the pre-interview and planning process. I have to be ready to handle a narrator’s emotions about a troubled relationship with a parent, a divorce that proved formative to a career, a bad review in a newspaper, and yes, a terror attack. 

It’s also made me mindful of people’s memories, especially around trauma. Though the historical facts of how I remember 9/11 remain static for me, the details of my mother’s experience were fuzzy. But it’s relevant to how we memorialize events, how we talk about them with our own communities, and what gets documented in the historical record. It’s also made me consider what gets left out of the left out of the story, perhaps because it happened too long ago, was repressed, or doesn’t feel as significant. For example, in talking to my mother about this very article that you’re reading, she told me that I was interviewed by the local newspaper shortly after September 11, 2001 about my experiences that day. I had my picture taken. I said that 9/11 had “changed my life.” Yet, I have no memory of being interviewed until or having my picture taken. And I have no idea why. I only vaguely remember hearing my parents talk about the article. In many of the oral history interviews that I’ve conducted over the last ten years, narrators often say to me, “I can’t remember the last time I thought about this.” That’s exactly how I felt when my mom told me about that newspaper article. 

9/11 shaped me in countless ways. That cloudless Tuesday and its aftermath continue to be present in my life, following me from high school to graduate school to my work at the OHC. It’s informed the way I think about life pre-9/11 and over the past twenty years. I’m not sure my memories will ever be less vivid or more pliable, but the impact, personally and professionally, will persist. 

 


On Being Raised in the Context of 9/11: Reflections of UC Berkeley Students

Introduction by Martin Meeker

When coming up with ideas for a special newsletter commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we recognized a blind spot: as a history organization, we typically look backwards into the past to inquire about the memories of individuals, now older, about experiences when they were younger. But what about the young? How do they experience and recall events that might have happened even before they were born, yet are destined to impact their lives going forward? What are they told by their parents and taught by their schools to help them form opinions and make them grapple with events in which they can take no blame and accept no praise? How do they remember key, shared events that they did not experience as conscious, thinking adults? In the passages below, you’ll find a group of our wonderful student employees as they contend with the “experience” of 9/11.

Shannon White

Shannon White
Shannon White

Shannon White is currently a third-year student at UC Berkeley studying Classical Languages. They are an Undergraduate Research Apprentice in the Nemea Center under Professor Kim Shelton and a member of the editing staff for the Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics. Shannon works as a student editor for the Oral History Center.

I was born in April of 2002, several months after 9/11, and as such, I’ve never lived in a world that didn’t have the shadow of such an unprecedented tragedy looming over it. In September of 2001, my mom was six weeks pregnant with me, living in an apartment on campus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where my dad was getting his master’s degree. I’ve heard the story from her many times over the course of my life: she was watching the news and sat there, in a state of absolute shock, as the towers fell. “I wondered what kind of world I was bringing you into,” she said when I asked her about it again today. My parents have both described their sadness in the wake of September 11, as well as the fear that their home, a major east coast city, would also become the target of an attack. The firsthand accounts of my parents have been so important for my understanding of an event which I did not experience myself but which has had such a lasting impact on the world in which I grew up.

Jordan Harris

Jordan Harris worked at the Oral History Center as an editorial assistant from February 2020 to August 2021. She graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

I was three years old when 9/11 happened. My mom remembers first hearing about it from a phone call with her mom, who said the Twin Towers were bombed. But my mom didn’t believe any of it, thinking my grandma had just been watching some crazy television show. When she came home after picking up my sister and me from daycare, my dad told her about the planes crashing into the towers. They vividly remember watching the overwhelming news coverage on the television, sitting in shock as they saw bodies falling from the destroyed buildings on the screen. 

I don’t think I really understood the impact of 9/11 until I was in middle school. Starting in those years and continuing through high school, there would be annual assemblies to honor the fallen of that day in 2001. As I grew older, every year I became more and more aware of it as this grave, anniversal fixture of American culture, from those assemblies in school to the cable news on TV to the millions of posts on social media, especially as those platforms evolved into ubiquitous fixtures of their own in everyday life. As someone who has no memories from that day since I was so young, it’s a strange thing to think about each year because even though it happened in my lifetime, it still feels far away—an episode of my parents’ lives but not my own.

Ashley Sangyou Kim

Ashley Sangyou Kim
Ashley Sangyou Kim

Ashley Kim is currently a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley studying Rhetoric. She is an editor for the World Section of Berkeley Political Review (BPR). Ashley works as a student editor for the Oral History Center.

My mom was six months pregnant with me when she saw 9/11 on TV. The first time I heard of this event was when my mother talked about seeing the burning Twin Towers on the news. She told me that she could not believe what was on the screen, and that even the reporters sounded confused at first. Many South Koreans look to America as the ultimate symbol of power, and the fact that something like this could happen was a shock to many people there. After my family immigrated to the US, the first time 9/11 was brought up in school was in sixth grade. My teacher showed the class a documentary detailing how passengers responded to the news that the planes were hijacked. It was a very emotional film, and the individual testimonies stayed with me for a while. Only a couple of years ago in college did I learn how 9/11 had an enormous impact on U.S. domestic and foreign policy. To be honest, I feel like I only know the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how 9/11 changed the world. 

Ricky Noel

Ricky J. Noel worked at the Oral History Center as a student editor. A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, he majored in history with a Latin American concentration.

For those of us born in the very late 90s, 9/11 was something that occurred in our lifetime, but we never quite understood the true gravity or impact of the tragedy until much later in life. Every anniversary of the tragedy was marked on our calendars but I personally did not learn the details of what had occurred until high school. Through various documentaries and podcasts I finally learned the full extent of what occurred that day and I finally understood how this terrible tragedy must have affected the people living through it. The idea that something like this could happen within the United States must have been a terrifying prospect. It set the stage for the United States — and by extension other countries — to become a lot more locked down in terms of how we moved around the world. The event changed everyday simple aspects of American life. Before 9/11 you could wait at the gate at the airport for a loved one, traveling was easier, and Afghanistan and Iraq were not constantly present in the back of your mind. Coming up on twenty years after the attack, 9/11 still has a conscious impact on America. It’s a tragedy that has continued to reverberate through the years, even through small changes that we have all become used to as part of everyday life. 

Water flows down two walls and disappears into a void at the center of a memorial reflecting pool. Sunlight creates shadows on the pooled water.
Memorial pool of the World Trade Center memorial, Reflecting Absence, by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker

From the Oral History Center Director: Remembering 9/11

by Martin Meeker

The radio alarm was set to KCBS news radio. I never really listened to the station itself but there was something mundane and even comforting about the even-keeled voices of newscasters summoning me from sleep. That morning was different, however. In the moments between the radio alarm sounding and my hitting of the snooze button, I heard a few voices in a more fevered tone than usual. I fell asleep again but I now recall dreams filled with anxiety and then awoke again before the 10-minute snooze reprieve. 

I turned the radio back on because I sensed something was wrong. It took a few minutes to unravel the breaking story, but the newscaster was speaking with then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The conversation was earnest and a bit frantic. The talk was of securing bridges, tunnels, public transit, and major public sites; offices were closing for the day and air traffic was grounded at the SFO airport. Here my memory gets a little foggy but I believe all four airplanes had already gone down along with one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I quickly roused myself from bed and turned on the television and tuned it to CNN (during one of the few times in my life I had cable TV). The images remain seared in my memory. I’m quite sure that I was watching as the second tower fell. I can still summon the emotions that I was feeling (although I typically prefer not to): fear, anger, horror, confusion, despair, helplessness, etcetera. The remainder of the day was a blur. I recall not wanting to commute from my apartment in Oakland to my work in San Francisco that day, so I stayed home and, like many, remained glued to the television. 

The recollection above is what oral historians called a “flashbulb memory” — and this was my flashbulb memory of learning about the attacks of September 11, 2001. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines this concept as, “a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event, often including such details as where the individual was or what he or she was doing at the time of the event.” Other common examples of when a vast number of people recall a moment with specificity include the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. In part because these events were so memorable — and often quite traumatic — they are said to define a generation or mark the transition to a new era. While studies have shown that the recalled memories tend to be vivid, they are not always as accurate as one might expect. Still, the memories when factually recalled (or creatively reimagined) can be revealing as they demonstrate the elements of an event that people find memorable — worth maintaining in one’s active memory and often sharing with others years after the event. 

We at the Oral History Center do not make a regular practice of asking our interviewees to recount their own flashbulb memories, but sometimes the question is appropriate or simply happens to come up in the course of the interview. Thanks to the excellent work of our student researcher Deborah Qu, we have below a series of recollections of that tragic day now twenty years ago. 

Night scene of New York City skyline with two beams of light where the twin towers once stood.
Tribute in Light, a commemorative public art installation first presented six months after 9/11 and then every year thereafter, from dusk to dawn, on the night of September 11.

The first selection is from Bob Swinford, who was interviewed for our project with the US Forest Service. He recalled, “I was right here on this floor [4th floor] Washington office of the Forest Service in Washington, DC, not in this office but across the way there, when the plane hit the Pentagon. This is an old building. We felt the concussion very much in this building. We felt the building quake, and we knew something bad had happened. Didn’t know where. But it didn’t take long because some folks on the fifth floor, in legislative affairs, saw right away. Obviously, we were watching the Twin Towers stuff on the television here, and then everybody said — a lot of people have taken credit for taking charge that day and sending everybody home. We didn’t hear anything. The chief just made the decision. A couple of law enforcement folks happened to be in the building for some reason, and we didn’t have a speaker system then, so they just became human speakers, and they went up and down the floors in all of the wings of the building and told everybody to go home.”

Robert Berdahl, who was Chancellor of UC Berkeley and thus living in the Pacific time zone, had a Berkeley-specific recollection: “I​​t was a Tuesday morning. It’s one of those days that is etched in your memory, like the assassination of Kennedy or some very, very significant event where you remember exactly where you were when you learned that something happened. In this case, I was still in bed and my wife was in St. Paul, so I was home alone. The phone rang at about 7:00 or 7:15 or something like that and it was John Cummins and he said, ‘Have you seen the television?’ And I said, ‘No, what’s happening?’ And he said, ‘Well, there’s been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers’ And so I jumped up, turned on the television and started watching it. And then watched when the Towers came down. And we called an immediate cabinet meeting to discuss what to do. There were a number of campuses that closed. This was September 11, so we were the only UC campus where school had started, because the others were on quarter system and school started later, a week or two later. So we were the only one that was open. But there was a lot of discussion about whether to close the campus.”

Finally, another perspective comes from Bill Koenig, a former San Francisco police officer who was on holiday navigating a barge through the canals of France. “We were actually moving that day. We were moving through the canals and we were coming to a small city, Briare, which is two/three hours south of Paris by car, maybe a month south by boat. So we were coming into a mooring. We squeezed into a mooring. Right behind us was a small English boat, very small, a single man on the boat. He had a TV. We had just put our mooring lines down. We had a dish on a TV so we could watch our TV. He came running out and said that an airplane had just flown into a New York skyscraper. We quickly got our TV working. We had it in operation by the time the second plane flew into the Twin Towers. It just stopped us, of course. There are hotel boats that take people, different size hotel boats, maybe four couples on, maybe up to twenty couples. Some of them — to go through the canals, maybe ten couples. One of the hotel boats came in with many Americans on board, and of course we were glued to the TV. We were getting CNN at that time. We could follow it. When the hotel boats came in, we put up more American flags. . . . One of the things that continually stops me is the 343 New York firefighters that lost their lives on that day.”

These accounts all provide great detail into events that, in a few examples, happened years prior to the interview. Rarely do we record such precise details of everyday life into our active memories, and those typically only are retained once we’ve had the opportunity to rely on such events shortly after transpiring. In other words, it is usually as a result the retelling of an event that it is recorded into our memories. The interviewees also tend to focus on the moment of learning itself: this is the flashbulb moment, in which it seems like an imprinting happens. And in each of these examples, the narrative flows from the moment of recognition to the immediate response: what happened next? For Swinton, the next move was evacuation from a vulnerable site; for Berdahl, it was how to respond as head of a major university campus; and for Koenig, the response was to learn more and to show pride and defiance in the face of the attack.

On this solemn anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, I invite you to connect with others and share your own memories of that date and the events that followed — and perhaps explore the memories of our flashbulb memories. What are the specific details that you remember? What are the facts that now seem a little fuzzy after twenty years? What transpired in the hours and days after the attack? Why do these memories stand out? How do your memories differ from those of friends and family? I recall one phrase heard and seen often in the wake of 9/11 was “Never Forget.” Perhaps one way of honoring those who lost their lives that day is to remember, share those memories, and explore the meaning of what we’ve recalled.

Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on the UC Berkeley Oral History Center home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria.


9/11 and Interviewing around Collective Trauma

“…I very rarely ask questions about 9/11 during oral history interviews, and I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is.”

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been reflecting on my own memories of that fateful day in September, and its impact on how I interview others about traumatic events. Indeed, I recently realized how deeply intertwined my thoughts about 9/11 are with my oral history practice.

The first time I spoke aloud about 9/11 – aside from discussing breaking news in the days that followed – was in my introductory oral history class with Dr. Natalie Fousekis at California State University, Fullerton in August 2009. This was nearly eight years after the original events, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda coordinated the hijacking of four passenger airplanes with the intent to crash them into major US targets. This led to a tragic loss of life and shook a sense of national security for many Americans.

As an exercise about collective memory, Natalie invited the class (from youngest to oldest) to share recollections of that day. Despite the age differences (approximately early twenties to early forties), as we went around the table, it was striking that roughly twenty different stories aligned so closely, as though we were all reciting the same narrative with slightly different words. With the exception of hearing the news while getting ready for high school, my own memories were much the same. This was, of course, in part due to the media coverage Americans saw of the Twin Towers falling over and over again, which helped create a collective memory of that day. But the similarity in omissions was striking, too. I don’t remember many people discussing the plane that hit the Pentagon or Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania. Later dubbed Ground Zero, even in 2009, New York City dominated our memories of 9/11.

9/11 memorial
Students spend the day visiting exhibits and completing activities in the museum’s classrooms on March 11, 2015. Photo by Jin Lee, 9/11 Memorial.

I also remember that though the mood in the classroom was somber, none of us cried or expressed an overwhelming sense of grief. Looking back, I wonder why there wasn’t more emotion around this discussion of such a traumatic moment. The eighth anniversary of 9/11 was only weeks away, and for those who had been teenagers in 2001, that day and the ensuing War on Terror had indelibly changed our lives. In part, maybe we were already trying to analyze our own experiences as oral historians rather than vulnerable individuals, interpreting what our collective memories meant rather than sitting with their personal heaviness. Or maybe this room of California students felt more removed from the horrors of that day due to physical distance from the sites on the East Coast. But it is also possible that even eight years later, we weren’t yet ready to address these memories as collective trauma.

In the more than a decade since this classroom discussion, I have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews – many of them discussing traumatic moments for individuals and the collective. Yet, I find it strange to reflect on the centrality of 9/11 to my early oral history training, as it has been a major pitfall in my own practice as an interviewer. About three years ago, while preparing an interview outline, I suddenly realized that my narrator’s work documenting and securing collections at a major arts institution coincided with this moment in history. Luckily the narrator agreed to share her memories, and we had a fruitful discussion about the ways in which, for a time, 9/11 impacted all levels of American culture. This experience helped me register that I very rarely ask questions about 9/11 during oral history interviews, and I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is.

One possibility is that I, like many others in the field, struggle with when an event gets to become “history,” and how we choose to memorialize it. To me, 9/11 feels like yesterday, not necessarily an historical moment upon which I need to ask narrators to reflect. And I am certainly guilty of collapsing historical timelines and not concentrating on the recent past, even during long life history interviews.

But I also suspect that my omission of 9/11 in interviews has a great deal to do with the traumatic nature of that day. Like many interviewers, I’ve sometimes been reluctant to introduce topics at particular points of an oral history for fear of creating a trauma narrative where there otherwise wasn’t. And until recent training, I was not even confident in my own skills tackling trauma-informed interviews. This hurdle has a clear solution: I need to prioritize discussing potentially traumatic topics like 9/11 in pre-interviews or introducing them in the co-created interview outline. 

What is less clear is how to navigate my own trauma about 9/11. How do my own memories of that day impact my willingness to ask others about it? Am I too close to the subject to be able to speak with narrators about it? Quite possibly. But one complication for all interviewers is that unlike other traumatic events with a beginning and end date, 9/11 is an ongoing reality – even twenty years later. From the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to the wide reach of the Department of Homeland Security to heightened airport screenings, we are all still living with the consequences of 9/11, and the trauma has not actually ended.

Twelve years after that classroom exercise around 9/11 and collective memory, I can appreciate Natalie’s methods all the more. I’ve learned over the course of my oral history practice that even deeply personal narratives can include elements of collective memory, and it is important to recognize such common threads in our lives as interviewers, as well. 

I often preach that oral history practitioners need to acknowledge our biases so that we can better overcome them or even use them to our advantage. For me, examining my blind spot around 9/11 has also encouraged me to think about incorporating more recent and ongoing historical events into interviews. Not only is this reflection an important addition to the historical record, it is part of our essential work to help narrators make meaning of their lives through oral history. Similarly, evaluating my own blind spot around 9/11 has helped me recognize the blind spots in the collective memory of that day – such as narratives that leave out Flight 93 or the attack at the Pentagon – and encouraged me to think about how oral history can help fill these gaps. As we recognize the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, this work feels more necessary than ever.

 


OHC’s August 2021 Director’s Guest Column, “Interconnections,” by Roger Eardley-Pryor

Interconnections

By Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD

Interconnections in oral histories are like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: once you notice them, you start seeing them everywhere. At least that’s how interconnections appear to me, both within and between some of our oral history projects. Webs of connection within a single oral history are sometimes overt—like when Sierra Club leader Aaron Mair hitched together the thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the words of John Muir, all while discussing inherent intersections between voting rights, civil rights, and environmental justice. Other interconnections, as you’ll read below, demand a bit of digging. However, once you scratch the surface, they’re like the root system for Quaking Aspen trees: it’s all interconnected down below.

The Pando grove of Quaking Aspen in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest has been around for about 80,000 to 1 million years and covers 107 acres. Underground, the trees all share a unified root system.

Quaking Aspens are the state tree of Utah, a place where I discovered some fascinating relationships between a few of our recent oral history projects. Hop along this interconnected oral history journey, with stops at a proposed power plant near a national park, then to a desert community in central Utah that twice experienced a major influx of new residents, which will bring us back to a new project the Oral History Center recently began. Along the way, we’ll examine environmental laws on air quality, lobby a few Senators, construct a coal-fired power plant, confront racist wartime hysteria, and seek contemporary healing from crimes of the past. I hope this journey leaves you with a sense of how oral histories reveal relationships between people and places, and how our sense of belonging to both evolves and intersects across space and time.

Tony Ruckel hiking at Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah in October 2020.

This journey begins with my interview with Tony Ruckel, another Sierra Club leader who, like Aaron Mair, was eventually elected president of the Club. Before that, in the 1970s, Ruckel founded and became director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF). The SCLDF, now called Earthjustice, was one of the nation’s first public interest environmental law organizations and, coincidentally, has many of its files archived in The Bancroft Library. Ruckel and his Rocky Mountain Regional Office handled all Sierra Club litigation from the northern plains, throughout the Rocky Mountains, and down to the desert southwest, including the red-rock canyonlands of southern Utah. A rouge riot of river-hewn rock undulates through southern Utah in streams of stone that reveal layers from eons upon eons of Earth. Wind-worn gorges where scrub brush and pine cling to canyon sides erupt in spires and stone arches of stark beauty and worldly wonder, such that several national parks aim to preserve that erosional landscape. During the energy crises of the 1970s, some of Ruckel’s legal campaigns featured battles against the Intermountain Power Plant, an enormous coal-fired electricity plant proposed just outside of scenic Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

The early plans for the Intermountain Power Plant near Capitol Reef would have created one of the largest coal-fired facilities ever built with four giant smoke-stacks belching pollution into the air. As Ruckel recalled, “Originally, it was proposed at five thousand megawatts. Well, nobody’s ever tried to build a plant that size…. So, then they carved it down to three thousand megawatts.” Most of those megawatts would be sent by wire to sprawling southern California for purchase by L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, with additional power purchased by the municipalities of Anaheim, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and Riverside. “It was clear California didn’t want to build this stuff,” Ruckel noted, “they just wanted to consume the energy.” To combat the giant coal plant near Capitol Reef, Ruckel’s legal strategy relied in part on the relatively recent Clean Air Act of 1970, which had surprisingly sharp teeth and a wide scope for federal regulation and enforcement.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 required the federal government to not just improve air quality in polluted areas, but it demanded the “prevention of significant deterioration of air quality” in areas that already had clean air, like at Capitol Reef National Park. However, in 1977, as Ruckel worked to halt the power plant in southern Utah, the Clean Air Act came up for Congressional review. The US House of Representatives rushed through new amendments and, as Ruckel told it, “lo and behold, there was nothing regarding the prevention of significant deterioration in the new statute … the language supporting it had been removed in the amendments.” Ruckel quickly shifted gears and, with help from Friends of the Earth, mounted a lobbying campaign in the US Senate to reinstate prevention of significant deterioration of air in amendments. “The result of the lobbying,” Ruckel explained, “was we certainly educated a ton of Senate staffers, particularly, and a few critical Senators. And as it resulted, that turned out to be enough.” The final 1977 Clean Air Act amendments re-inserted language on the prevention of significant deterioration of air, which pushed the Intermountain Power Plant toward a different construction site away from southern Utah’s pristine national parks. In the early 1980s, plans for the power plant moved north to the desert of central Utah near a town named Delta, which provides the next stop on our interconnected journey between Oral History Center projects.

In 1986, the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, Utah, began burning coal for electrical power sent mostly to southern California.

Tony Ruckel’s efforts to move the Intermountain Power Plant away from southern Utah’s national parks produced significant demographic and social changes in the small desert community of Delta in central Utah. In 1981, during groundbreaking ceremonies for the Intermountain Power Plant, the population of Delta City was 1,930. Over the next few years, Delta’s population exploded with 6,000 new construction workers and their families who struggled to find temporary housing, often living in burgeoning mobile home parks or in motel rooms. Delta’s over-crowded classrooms benefited from new school construction, paid with nearly $8 million in mitigation funds from the Intermountain Power Plant, which also helped build a new city hall. In 1984, a new hospital broke ground in the town of Delta in addition to sewer and water system improvements, enhanced police protection, and new vocational education opportunities funded in part by the power plant. But even as local incomes rose, so did crime rates and, after Delta’s long standing ban on Sunday alcohol sales was repealed in 1983, liquor purchases more than doubled. After the power plant’s first coal-fired unit came on line, a formal dedication of the project held in 1987 saw an estimated 8,000 people attend. The tiny Delta airport handled fifty-two private airplanes, which required hiring an air traffic controller in a temporary tower built for the occasion. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang, and the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came down from Salt Lake City to offer a dedicatory prayer. In the 1980s, after inviting the Intermountain Power Plant to Delta, the town transitioned temporarily from a dozy desert community to a bustling boomtown. A swift sense of change swept through Delta’s desert community like a flash-flood through a slot canyon.

Those developments in Delta during the 1980s spurred some longtime residents to preserve parts of its dwindling past. When local residents launched a drive to retrieve and preserve an 1893 Case tractor in the county, they sparked interest in building an historical center to house such artifacts. The Great Basin Museum and the Great Basin Historical Society were both founded in the mid-1980s. And in over-subscribed journalism classes at Delta High School, teachers aimed to engage new students in the local history of their new hometown. Students began interviewing Delta’s local elders for the school paper and learned that many longtime residents had memories and historical artifacts from an American race-based prison camp constructed during World War II just a few miles outside of Delta, Utah.

A watercolor a watch tower at the Topaz prison camp near Delta, Utah, painted by 6 year old girl Ibuki Hibi, now part of The Bancroft Library’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement collection. (BANC PIC 1973.049:49–B)

Back in February 1942, just 10 weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from “prescribed military areas.” More than 110,000 Japanese American citizens—men, women, and children—were forced from their homes in Western portions of the country to incarceration camps built in desolate areas of the United States. One such Japanese American incarceration camp was built hastily in the remote desert of central Utah, sixteen miles from Delta. The “Central Utah Relocation Center,” more commonly called Topaz, was designed to house 9,000 prisoners in forty-two blocks of make-shift housing units. During its three years of operation, Topaz imprisoned 11,212 individuals due to their race and family ancestry. Most were American citizens. In the early 1940s, the influx of imprisoned Japanese Americans at Topaz made it the fifth-largest community in Utah before the camp closed and was disassembled in October 1945.

In the early 1980s, the influx of new residents to central Utah for the Intermountain Power Plant sparked renewed interest in Delta’s local history, including that of Topaz and the people affiliated with it. In 1983, survivors of incarceration at Topaz and residents in Delta together created the Topaz Museum Board as a 501(c)(3) organization to formally collect stories and artifacts for an eventual museum in Delta. Around the same time, longstanding protests by Japanese Americans demanding financial redress for their mass incarceration without due process gained new traction. In 1980, the US Congress and President Jimmy Carter approved creation of a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The Commission’s report, released in late 1982 and titled Personal Justice Denied, denounced the injustice of mass exclusion, removal, and detention of Japanese Americans and concluded the government’s policies were caused not by “military necessity” but by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The Commission’s recommendations eventually culminated in passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided a national apology and individual reparations of $20,000, known as redress, that were delivered to survivors of that imprisonment.

A postcard of the Topaz prison camp near Delta, Utah in 1945, now part of The Bancroft Library’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement collection. (BANC PIC 1966.041:01–PIC)

The redress movement in the 1980s encouraged renewed reckoning with one chapter from the long, dark history of American racism, but over time Americans’ knowledge of Japanese American incarceration appeared to fade. Nearly twenty years after redress, Congress passed the Preservation of Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) Act of 2006, which established a $38 million matching-grant program to identify, collect, and preserve stories, artifacts, and historic sites connected to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. The Topaz Museum Board in Delta, Utah, submitted an early JACS grant and, after many years of effort, the Topaz Museum opened to the public in 2017. One of the museum’s founders wrote, “If you visit the museum, you might be able to sense the complexity of the deeply troubling history of Topaz. We hope you will be convinced that we all have an obligation to prevent anything like it from happening again.”

Here’s where the points along our journey connect back to Berkeley’s Oral History Center and to The Bancroft Library. Almost ten years ago, the Oral History Center also earned a JACS grant to conduct oral histories with Japanese Americans who attended UC Berkeley before—and in some cases after—their incarceration during World War II. That initial oral history JACS project coincided with The Bancroft Library’s separate JACS grant to digitize and make available online the library’s extensive Japanese American incarceration materials, which have now become The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Digital Archive. Many of those materials will be used in a forthcoming exhibition titled, “Uprooted: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans,” which will open this October in The Bancroft Library.

“Manzanar Relocation Center from tower,” photograph taken by Ansel Adams in 1943 and archived in the US Library of Congress. Adams discusses Manzanar in his Sierra Club Oral History Project interview in the 1970s.

At the same time, the Oral History Center is now in the early stages of a new JACS project titled “Healing Intergenerational Wounds of Japanese American Confinement?: Private and Public Memory at Manzanar and Topaz.” During the pandemic year of 2020, the Oral History Center submitted a JACS grant proposal focused on two of the ten Japanese American prison camps during World War II: Manzanar in southeastern California, and Topaz in central Utah. In May of 2021, the same month the Oral History Center published our interview with Tony Ruckel for the Sierra Club Oral History Project, we learned our JACS grant proposal was successful!

The heart of our newest JACS project asks, how do people heal? In collaboration with Japanese American advisors and partners, we will conduct new oral history interviews, produce a new Berkeley Remix podcast series based on those interviews, and create graphic narrative artwork to document and disseminate the ways in which intergenerational trauma and healing occurred after the U.S. government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. With narratives of healing as our project’s through line, we will interview descendants of those involved in the redress movement who initiated the conversation around healing; individuals who relate to their Japanese American heritage and incarceration history through popular culture; and those who interpret these stories of trauma and empowerment at incarceration sites and beyond. We will investigate the impact of different types of healing, how this informs collective memory, and how these narratives change across generations. The oral histories conducted for this JACS project will examine and compare how private memory, creative expression, place, and public interpretation intersect at the Manzanar and Topaz prison camps. We hope that preserving and sharing this myriad of voices from an intergenerational spectrum of experiences—both historic and contemporary—will provide an accessible way for society to engage with America’s fraught past with Japanese American incarceration.

Writer and Sierra Club member Wallace Stegner, whose interview with the Oral History Center is titled “The Artist as Environmental Advocate,” wrote an essay in 1986 titled “The Sense of Place.” “It is probably time we looked around us instead of looking ahead,” Stenger wrote, “to learn that place’s history and to … acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.” Who belongs to a place, what belongs, and how they belong—or how they do not—are all questions that echo across the oral history journey recounted in this post, particularly as they reverberate in the canyons and over the deserts of Utah. But questions of belonging and place animate all of American history. Indeed, that is the story of humankind.

The stories of how people make sense of their place in the world, and how their sense of belonging changes over time, is exactly what we try to record at the Oral History Center. I’ve learned from preserving and promoting these stories that, almost always, they are interwoven in intricate and unexpected ways. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in 1963 from a jail cell in Birmingham, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” King continued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Former Sierra Club president Aaron Mair, in his oral history, connected King’s thoughts to words scribbled in a journal by eventual Sierra Club founder John Muir nearly one hundred years earlier. In 1869, while spending a transformative summer living in the Yosemite Valley, Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”

Interconnected threads such as these between people, places, and projects at the Oral History Center weave a remarkable tapestry through time. The more time you spend exploring our incredible archive of oral history interviews, the more intricate and meaningful these connections begin to appear. This month, as a new academic year begins and students and staff physically return to Berkeley—with many first and second-year students stepping foot on campus for the very first time—I encourage you to dive into our collection and see what kinds of interconnections might appear.

 

Find these and all the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. To ensure a full text search, on the next page scroll down and toggle on the button that says “full text.” You can also visit all our collection guides and our projects page to find oral histories on specific subjects. We have oral histories on just about every topic imaginable.

— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD


Oral History Project Celebrates Famed Political Scientist James C. Scott and the Yale Agrarian Studies Program

Since its inception in 1953, the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has been responsible for compiling one of the largest and most widely used oral history collections in the country. The interviewees within this vast collection include many of the nation’s high-profile citizens, ranging from senators and governors to artists, actors, and industrialists. And standing among this distinguished list is an equally impressive group of scholars. As a research unit based at UC Berkeley, the Oral History Center has long gained rare access to the academy and ultimately built one of the richest oral history collections on higher education and intellectual history in the nation. Interviews with Nobel laureates and university presidents fill this collection, as do leading scientists and pioneering faculty of color. Thus, a project on the famed Yale political scientist, James C. Scott, and his equally renowned Agrarian Studies Program, stands as a fitting addition to the Bancroft collection. We are pleased to announce the release of the Yale Agrarian Studies Oral History Project, a two-part series featuring the life history of James C. Scott, and shorter interviews with over a dozen affiliates of the Yale Agrarian Studies Program. The project was created and conducted by OHC Historian Todd Holmes.

James C. Scott

For many students and scholars, James C. Scott needs no introduction. He is the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, with additional appointments in the Department of Anthropology and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is the author of over nine books, most of which are not only widely read across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, but considered foundational works in those disciplines. To be sure, the impact of Scott’s scholarship is immeasurable. Over the decades, his books became a series of major interventions, shaping dozens of discourses and research agendas throughout the academy. “Brilliant” became an adjective used by readers with no sense of hyperbole. In recognition of his contributions, he was awarded the 2020 Albert O. Hirschman Prize, the Social Science Research Council’s highest honor.

In his oral history, James C. Scott: Agrarian Studies and Over 50 Years of Pioneering Work in the Social Sciences, he discusses his childhood in New Jersey and the Quaker school that played a large role in shaping the scholar known for marching to his own drummer. He discusses his experience with the National Student Association, the interesting turn his studies took upon entry to Yale Graduate School, and the string of books he produced in the decades that followed. These include The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia; Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance; Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts; Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed; The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia; and Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, among other works. He also recounts the founding of the Agrarian Studies Program, an interdisciplinary flagship in the humanities and social sciences now celebrating over thirty years of operation at Yale University.

Part Two of this project features interviews with affiliates of this renowned Program. Aptly titled, “Reflections on James C. Scott and the Agrarian Studies Program,” this segment of the project has scholars recount their experience with both Jim Scott and the Program, recollections that help to document the history and impact of Agrarian Studies, as well as offer future generations a glimpse at the extraordinary scholar who shaped it.

For the last three decades, Yale’s Agrarian Studies Program has stood as one of the most exciting intellectual ecosystems in the academy. Officially founded by Jim Scott and collaborators in the fall of 1991, the Program brought a critical and interdisciplinary lens to the everyday experience of rural societies. With the world as its intellectual playground, and the sweep of history its scope, the Program became the place for cutting-edge research. Anthropologists, historians, and political scientists filled the rooms of the weekly colloquium, as did sociologists, activists, and real-life farmers. The topics of discussion stood just as diverse. From peasant revolts in France or ancient Roman cuisine, to dam building in India or the industrial foodways of American agribusiness, nearly any topic of interest found a place within the big tent of Agrarian Studies. Few could have realized in the fall of 1991, that the newly-minted program would not only last thirty years, but also come to shape nearly three generations of scholarship and redefine the notion of interdisciplinary work.

Below are the interviews of the Yale Agrarian Studies Oral History Project. You can access the transcript for each interview through the respective hyperlink. Segments of these interviews are also featured in the video below celebrating the Program’s thirtieth anniversary. Lastly, we are pleased to announce that a video on the life and career of James C. Scott is currently underway and will be released in spring 2022. Stay tuned!!

Interviews & Transcripts

James C. Scott

Sterling Professor of Political Science

Yale University

 

 

Mark Bomford

Director, Yale Sustainable Food Program

 

 

 

Michael Dove

Michael Dove

Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology

Yale University

 

 

Michael Dove

Paul Freedman

Chester D. Tripp Professor of History

Yale University

 

 

Robert Harms

Robert Harms

Henry J. Heinz Professor of History & African Studies

Yale University

 

 

Marvel “Kay” Mansfield

Marvel “Kay” Mansfield

Former Program Coordinator

Yale Agrarian Studies

 

 

Alan Mikhail

Alan Mikhail

Professor of History

Yale University

 

 

Peter C. Perdue

Professor of History

Yale University

 

 

Alison Richard

Former Provost / Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor Emerita of the Human Environment

Yale University

 

 

Paul Sabin

Professor of History & American Studies

Yale University

 

 

Nathan Sayre

Professor of Geography

University of California, Berkeley

 

 

Ian Shapiro

Sterling Professor of Political Science

Yale University

 

 

Helen Siu

Professor of Anthropology

Yale University

 

 

K. Sivaramankrishnan

Dinakar Singh Professor of Anthropology / Professor, School of the Environment

Yale University

 

 

Louis Warren

Turrentine Jackson Professor of U.S. Western History

University of California, Davis

 

 

Michael Watts

Class of 1963 Professor of Geography (Emeritus)

University of California, Berkeley

 

 

Elisabeth Wood

Crosby Professor of the Human Environment / Professor of Political Science

Yale University

 

 

Project by Todd Holmes

todd.holmes@berkeley.edu


Newton Bishop Drury and the Legacy of the Save the Redwoods League

By Deborah Qu

The balance between preserving nature and sharing it with the public remains a delicate one, according to redwood conservationist Newton Bishop Drury. “In a great natural area its beauty is a fragile thing usually — that’s particularly true of mountain meadows and other areas of relatively sparse vegetation, slow-growing plants. In one day an undue visitation might blot out many of the elements that made the beauty of the place, so that many a great area carries in its beauty the seeds of its own destruction.” As the director of the National Park Service from 1940–1951, Drury set out to revive the flora and fauna of the California statewide park system to its most natural state, while allowing the public to enjoy the most out of the scenery. This challenge was not his first in balancing the demands of environmental conservation and the interests of people and industries. 

This challenge was not his first in balancing the demands of environmental conservation and the interests of people and industries. 

Within the extensive five-volume oral history recorded by the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library from 1960–1970, Drury recounts his life and fruitful career. Drury graduated in the class of 1912 at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founded the advertising agency Drury Brothers Company in 1919. That same year, he was hired to publicize the newly formed Save the Redwoods League, a nonprofit organization that to this day specializes in the preservation of the endangered redwood forests and parkland. Drury became instrumental in expanding the League and establishing public support for a united park system throughout the twenties. Due to his efforts, among the work of the Save the Redwoods League and others, the California state park system was formed in 1927. 

Newton B. Drury
Newton B. Drury (Photo from California Department of Parks and Recreation)

In his oral history, Drury describes how the Save the Redwoods League first began in 1917, when geologist and UC Berkeley professor Dr. John C. Merriam and others had taken a trip to Humboldt County in Northern California, as urged by the head of the National Park Service, Stephen Mathers. Upon viewing the rapid deterioration of redwood groves within the last century, they called for legislative action to protect redwood forests. “At that time, the way we have always understood it, the idea of a permanent, nationwide organization such as the Save the Redwoods League was conceived,” Drury recalls. 

Deforestation was at its height due to uncontrolled logging in the early 1900s. The drastic change of forest scenery throughout California was heartbreaking to Drury, who observes, “One of the great tragedies in California is that practically none of the river banks in California, except a few relatively small parks that have been established just lately, are assured of preservation.” During the flooding seasons, banks experienced erosion and the habitats of burrowing mammals were lost. The natural beauty of the Northern California coastline was also harmed. As Drury recalls, “All of this country had magnificent coast oak forests in the early days. Some of Berkeley still has. Now you hear the city of Oakland named and you wonder how it got its name.”  

To secure land, Drury often worked with logging companies and the forestry board, which was established to ensure a steady flow of wood products. Drury distinctly remembers the way the logging industry and the League differed in priorities, describing how the forestry board wanted “to conserve for consumption, while the parks were for the purpose of preserving for enjoyment and maintaining the pristine condition of the forests.” At the same time, they were motivated to work with the League in the interest of sustainability. One of Drury’s first great contributions to the League was his involvement in raising funds and negotiating a purchase of redwood groves for the League from lumber companies in 1920–1921, areas that constitute Humboldt Redwoods State Park today. 

According to Drury, his brother Audrey came up with the idea of establishing memorial groves dedicated to historical figures, environmentalists, and philanthropists during the early 1920s. As executive secretary of the League in 1920, Drury established the “first so-called memorial grove” known as Boiling Grove inside Humboldt County. Today, there are thousands of park areas that memorialize figures, including a scenic parkway built to commemorate Drury for his work in forest preservation. 

Paved road through redwood groves
The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (Photo by Dave Van de Mark for the National Park Service)

Although the League was successful in acquiring land in the late 1910s and 1920s, conservation parks in California were separately run and faced issues of obtaining sizable grants to acquire the areas that needed to be preserved. This is why the League always recognized the need for a government-run system. Throughout the twenties, Drury began publicly campaigning for a unified state park system. In 1925, two bills requesting a centralized park system had passed the legislature but were denied by Governor Friend Richardson. However, in 1927, three state park bills under Governor C. C. Young passed, which together granted permission to create a commission for a statewide park system, to survey for potential park sites, and to request a $6 million bond issue to purchase forests for state parks from voters. The State Park Commission was formed, and the $6 million bond issue that requested matching funds from non-State sources was successfully approved by voters. Land purchased by the League was generally donated to the California state park system. With adequate funding, a united front, and Drury as the acquisition officer, the park system quickly grew. 

Today, the California state park system has over 270 parks and the Save the Redwoods League continues to raise money for land acquisition as well as to restore damaged redwood forests. Because of Drury, members of the League, other conservationists, and lawmakers, we can enjoy redwood groves that bring shade to sunny days, homes to wildlife, and beauty of the landscape. Drury became director of the National Park Service in the forties and head of the State Division of Parks and Beaches in the fifties, but in 1959 he returned to the Save the Redwoods League as a chairman, back to where he first started.

More Oral Histories on the Save the Redwoods League

In addition to Drury’s story, the Oral History Center collection contains interviews of California state park managers as well as other Save the Redwoods League members. This includes Humboldt Redwoods State Park’s first ranger Enoch Percy French, who supervised the conservation of Humboldt County redwood groves after they were acquired by the League. Sierra Club co-founder and secretary of the State Park Commission William E. Colby provides more insight into the commission’s formation in his 1954 oral history. The oral history by UC Berkeley paleobotanist professor and long-standing Save the Redwoods League member Ralph Works Chaney describes the fight to leave “the fragile nature of the landscape” at Point Lobos undisturbed, with the goal to erase destructive human interference. Chaney, who became president of the Save the Redwoods League from 19611971, also felt the conflicting perspectives between the park and the forest service, the latter of which was interested in “selling lumber, selling grazing rights, and . . . regulat[ing] and regularly permit[ting] camping.” For information about the Save the Redwoods League through the late twentieth century, Bruce Howard, League president from 19801995, recounts further bouts of reorganization and expansion in his OHC interview. Within these oral histories are countless stories of individuals with a love of nature, a dedication to the conservation of plants and wildlife, and a vision to preserve it for future generations. 

Find these and all the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. 

See also The Bancroft Library collection of Drury’s papers:  Finding Aid to the Newton Bishop Drury papers BANC MSS 79/61 c.

Deborah Qu (she/her) is an undergraduate research assistant at the Oral History Center from the Bay Area. She is currently going into her third year at UC Berkeley and is majoring in Psychology with a Data Science minor.